HDTV Not Ready Yet

When people have asked for my advice regarding which HDTV thingie to buy, my general response has been very simple: don’t.

If there’s some feature that you absolutely must have, and you’d be OK with your purchase even if you couldn’t do any of the cool stuff they’re promising for the future, then maybe HDTV is for you. Maybe.

Why so pessimistic? So-called “digital rights management” schemes hadn’t been hashed out completely yet, and it’s not clear that you’ll actually be able to use your year-old technology until it is. Given the concern the vendors have shown to protect the interests of their customers, and the effectiveness of their quality assurance efforts, I have not believed any of the promises regarding whether equipment bought today will work with the promised new technology of tomorrow.

It appears, now, that most of the DRM story has been figured out, and we have a basic idea of what some of the new HDTV player technologies are going to look like. And what do we learn about older HDTV equipment?

We learn, first of all, that no computer video cards on sale today support the standards, despite advertising to the contrary. One company has already begun to backpedal on their former advertising promises. Did you buy a Media Center PC for the HDTV support? Are you planning to? Check your specs carefully, or you may find yourself watching a lot of low-definition television on it soon.

Next, we learn (via Slashdot) that the new HD DVD players will send a degraded signal to HDTV monitors that don’t support their DRM standard. How many monitors sold today support the new standard?

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In other words, even if you bought a HDTV monitor yesterday, your HD movies will only look slightly better on it than regular DVD once the new formats come out. For full HD movies, you’ll have to buy a new monitor, one that isn’t on sale yet.

So, at least for the foreseeable future, do what I do: buy standard analog TV and video equipment. Because of the huge installed base, no one will dare making those old standards obsolete for a long time yet. And for higher quality viewing and listening, use a computer and a computer monitor.

3 thoughts on “HDTV Not Ready Yet

  1. HDTV monitors don’t need to support AACS directly for full-rez digital playback of protected content; instead, all they need to support is the existing HDCP protocol over DVI or HDMI (and I think HDCP is required as part of the latter). Pretty much any HDTV made today with either port supports HDCP (including my $700 27-inch Westinghouse), although a few cheapie off-brand ones may not, and there are some really cheap HDTVs still with only analog (component) inputs.

    Computer monitors, however, may be another issue, and TVs with multiple HDCP-capable inputs aren’t that common, since most low-end equipment didn’t have digital outputs until recently, which is a limitation if you (say) want to use a HTPC and an upconverting DVD or Bluray/HD-DVD at the same time.

  2. That seems to contradict the sources above, who seem to think that the monitor does have to support AACS directly to avoid downsampling, at least for movies with the “DRM bit” set.

    Now, it sounds like you know your way around this stuff better than I, so I’m thinking I must be confused.

    (I’ve also posted about the studios’ promises not to set the bit. Is that what you’re talking about?)

  3. No, it’s not about the promises from all the studios except Warner.

    AACS is essentially “CSS on crack.” It is implemented on the disc and player (consumer player, HTPC, etc.) only, and applies to both BD (Bluray) and HD DVD. The AACS downscaling bit tells the player that it must not send out the full resolution signal on analog or non-HDCP protected digital outputs; if the bit is set, the player can still send full-res video to the monitor, but only if it supports HDCP handshaking. If it isn’t set, the signal can go out unscaled.

    So, AACS equipment doesn’t really exist yet, but that’s because there are essentially no HD DVD or BD players available. But it’s a non-issue for monitors and HDTVs, since all they need to be compatible is HDCP support (much more common on consumer HDTVs and HD monitors than on computer monitors).

    Of course, the other issue is that at normal viewing distances, I’d be surprised if you could tell the difference between downscaled to 960×540 1080p video and real 1080p video except when looking at things like small print in the credits, particularly since 960×540 is just a 50% downscale (which will show few, if any, obvious artifacts). And it’s still over 3 times the on-disc 480×480 resolution of DVD.

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